A dialogue about the origins of various Christmas traditions, written by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires, December 2020
What are you looking so pleased about?
It’s Christmas! I love Christmas! It is a time when we remember the old, old story, from centuries ago, when we do all sorts of things that people have done each Christmas for years and years—hundreds, even thousands, of years. All those wonderful traditions, stretching all the way back. It all reminds us of that very first Christmas, doesn’t it?
Well, I am not so sure about that.
But I love Christmas! It’s all about the presents, isn’t it?
Well, actually, it seems that Christmas presents in the way we give them—to family members and close friends—have only been around for 200 years.
It started in New York in the early years of the 19th century with donations in the streets to the poor. Even then Americans worried about socialism, so this Christmas tradition moved from the streets into homes. One of these benefactors decided to celebrate Christmas by giving family gifts to promote his enormously popular poem “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”.
So Christmas presents as we know them are just a modern American commercialisation of the season.
But weren’t there presents given long ago?
Well, kind of. The story of Nicholas of Myra who was Bishop there (in Turkey) in the 4th century says that he rescued three young girls from prostitution by providing them with a dowry. Nicholas secretly dropped a sack of gold coins through the window in the dead of night—one sack for each of the three girls, three nights in a row. That meant their father could marry them off instead of selling them.
But didn’t the Wise Men give presents?
They took gifts that matched prophecies in the scriptures. Hardly the gift fest of modern times.
Anyway, I was telling you about Nicholas of Myra. He became Saint Nicholas. He is known as Sinterklaas in Holland, Miklavz in Lovenia, and much later onhe became jolly old St Nick, and then Father Christmas in Britain, and Santa Claus in America.
Ah—Santa Claus! Christmas is all about Santa Claus, isn’t it?
Santa Claus is really only 150 years old. During the 1860s, the cartoonist Thomas Nast created an image of Santa Claus that portrayed him as a warm, grandfatherly character who appeared with his arms full of toys.
The familiar red suit and long white beard appeared only in 1931, when Coca Cola commissioned Haddon Sundblom to paint Santa for their Christmas ads. Sundblom based his portrayal of Santa on the 1822 poem, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”. In Coca Cola’s colours, of course.
Well I still love Christmas!. It’s all about the cards and carols and Christmas cheer, then.
Cards. Actually, the first Christmas card was invented only in the 1840s, by Sir Henry Cole—best remembered today as the founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It was a way of encouraging people to use the newly-formed postal service.
Well what about carols, then? The carols that we have sung for centuries and centuries.
Sure. There are lots of Christmas carols. And that is an old tradition. But I reckon you don’t actually sing the really old Christmas carols. Sung “Jesus refulsit omnium” (“Jesus illuminates all”) lately? St. Hilary of Poitiers composed it in Latin in 368. Another carol from the 4th century was written by the Roman poet, Aurelius Prudentius Clemens. Prudentius composed “Cordenatus ex Parentis”, which was subsequently translated into English as “Of the Father’s love begotten”. That’s in the hymn book, but I don’t think you will hear it in the Christmas muzak when you shop in the stores!
Most of the carols we sing were written in the late 19th or early 20th century. So they are old-ish, but not really ancient. And people today are still writing new carols. We should be singing some of those!
But how good is Christmas. It’s all about putting up the Christmas tree. And the Christmas lights. I love Christmas! Lots of spectacle. It’s a great time. Christmas tree and Christmas lights, just like people have always done.
Yes, there is an old, old connection with light shining in the darkness at this time of the year. From an oil lamp, presumably and not electricity! Christmas Day is right near the Winter Solstice—the day where there is the shortest time between the sun rising and the sun setting. It hardly applies here in the Southern Hemisphere, as there is an abundance of light, but we still celebrate Christmas in December.
There was a pagan festival at this time, to celebrate that light will come despite it being winter. The early Christian missionaries just took this festival and Christianised it, and made it their festival. Clever tactics, really.
And the Christmas tree?
The honour of establishing this tradition belongs to ‘good Queen Charlotte’, the German wife of George III, who set up the first known English tree at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in December, 1800.
Legend has it that Martin Luther, the religious reformer, invented the Christmas tree. One winter’s night in 1536, so the story goes, Luther was walking through a pine forest near his home in Wittenberg when he suddenly looked up and saw thousands of stars glinting jewel-like among the branches of the trees. This wondrous sight inspired him to set up a candle-lit fir tree in his house that Christmas to remind his children of the starry heavens from whence their Saviour came.
So the Christmas tree is around 500 years old. Hardly biblical, is it?
OK, I still love Christmas! It’s all about celebrating with family and eating lots of food and drinking lots of booze. Turkey and ham and prawns and pudding and mince pies and eggnog and wine.
What? No beer?
Well, yes, beer—of course! In the Aussie summer, you must drink beer at Christmas!
Well I guess you must! It’s the Victorians who really gave birth to the traditional Christmas dinner as we know it. Actually, Charles Dickens was the one who spread the idea of a table filled to overflowing with food, with a roast bird in the middle, surrounded by all the trimmings and a pudding.
Legend has it that Henry VIII was the first person to eat a turkey on Christmas Day, but it wasn’t until Victorian times that it became more common.
The Christmas cake we all know and love today originates from a cake made for and eaten on Twelfth Night (5 January), which was when the three wise men supposedly arrived in Bethlehem to see baby Jesus. The use of spices was supposed to symbolise the gifts the three men brought with them, whilealmonds and dried fruit were a rare sweet treat in the colder months.
However, in the 1640s Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans banned feasting of any kind on Twelfth Night, so people started to make it on Christmas Day instead.
What about Christmas pudding? It’s an ancient custom, surely.
You think the wise men turned up with it as well? Christmas pudding began life as something called plum porridge (first referenced in 1573), a pretty unappetising sounding dish made from beef shin, spices, sugar and fruit, boiled in a broth and reduced until gelatinous. It was eaten on Christmas Eve after fasting, and then stored for weeks afterwards (back then people believed if something jellified it was good to eat for a long time). It wasn’t in the form of the delicious Christmas pudding that we know until—once again, the Victorian times. No biblical joy here!
Well, seafood, then—what about Christmas prawns and oysters?
Prawns and seafood are a special downunder addition to the menu. They reflect that our Christmas is right in the middle of summer, days are long and hot, having the oven going full pelt for hours is not really sensible, so cold seafood is a good alternative. Again, not in the Bible (unless you eat sardines—they are caught in the Sea of Galilee).
I love Christmas!. It’s all about the sales, isn’t it? Bargains!!
Yes: Christmas has been completely turned into a commercial event by these sales. Before Christmas is bad enough; but Boxing Day is another thing. This comes from the ancient practice of giving boxes of money at the midwinter holiday season to all those who had given good service throughout the year. Boxing Day, December 26, was the day the boxes were opened.
Later, it was the day on which the alms boxes, located in the churches on Christmas Day, were opened and the contents given to the poor. We don’t have alms boxes at churches any more. And the sales in the shops only really came into being in the last two decades or so. Another commercial element introduced by America! And this is distinctively anti-biblical, where Jesus tells us to give our possessions away—not buy more and more!
I still love Christmas!. Because it must be all about the holidays. Days at the beach. Lazing around and sleeping in and doing nothing.
And travelling to get there. Stuck in the Boxing Day traffic snarls. Polluting the atmosphere with exhaust fumes and particulates and poisons. Good one. All very recent additions to the celebrations. Nothing ancient here as in biblical times they walked everywhere.
I still love Christmas!. It’s all about the nativity scene when the wise men came with the shepherds to give the newborn baby gifts.
True that every Christmas, we are surrounded by images of the nativity scene: the infant Jesus, in a cradle, with his mother Mary sitting and his father Joseph standing nearby, surrounded by animals (cows, most often), with a group of shepherds (with their sheep) to one side, whilst on the other side three exotic blokes stand with presents in hand: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s as historical as the Little Drummer Boy is and not a particularly accurate portrayal of what was happening at the time when Jesus was born.
The traditional scene that we see today was invented by the medieval friar, Francis of Assisi. Before that, it did not exist because it wasn’t very biblical!
Besides, it is only in Luke’s story that we have the shepherds in the field, listening to the angels. And it is only in Matthew’s account that we have the wise visitors from the East, travelling long distances to bring their gifts to the child. Shepherds in one story, wise ones in the other; not there at the same time, despite all the nativity scenes we see!
I still love Christmas!. It’s all about celebrating the birth of Jesus on his real birthday, December 25.
What? In the middle of winter in the northern hemisphere? When the ground was covered with snow and all the animals like the sheep should have been under cover—not out in the fields listening to the angels! When no one travelled anywhere?
No one knows the real birthday of Jesus. No date is given in the Bible. The early Christians had many arguments as to when it should be celebrated.Also, the birth of Jesus probably didn’t happen in the year 1 but slightly earlier, probably in 4 BCE.
The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (he was the first Christian Roman Emperor). I’ve already told you it was a pagan festival that the early Christians stole, could even have been from the Roman Saturnalia.
Christmas was actually celebrated by the very early Church on January 6th, when they also celebrated the Epiphany, which means the revelation that Jesus was God’s son. In Eastern Orthodox churches, they still do this.
I love Christmas!. It’s all about Christ. Let’s keep Christ in Christmas.
Finally! The name Christmas comes from the Mass of Christ. A Roman Catholic Mass service (which is similar to our Communion) is where Christians remember that Jesus died for us and then came back to life. The ‘Christ-Mass’ service was the only one that was allowed to take place after sunset (and before sunrise the next day), so people had it at Midnight! So we get the name Christ-Mass, shortened to Christmas, and for many centuries it was celebrated at midnight on Christmas Eve, not on Christmas morning.
Oh well: Happy Christmas, anyway!
And Happy Christmas to you, too!